I first met Mindy Budgor in October 2010. She had just started at UChicago Booth School of Business and wanted to continue to do work in international development, especially Kenya. She contacted me out of the blue to ask me how she could be involved in the startup I was running at the time. We chatted on the phone for a bit and agreed to meet for coffee the week after.
During coffee, I asked her for her background, and she was humble. She told me about the startup that she sold. She then paused and said, “I then went to Kenya.” That got my attention, “tell me more.”
She then delved into details of her journey to be the first Maasai warrior. Our supposed 45-minute coffee conversation turned into a two hour conversation. I remember that I was especially impressed by how she just decided to hop on a plane and go there without really a plan. I was also struck by how though she ended up being the first Maasai warrior, she didn’t go there with the goal of female empowerment or to radically change the Maasai culture. She simply saw the journey to become a moran a challenge. It was as simple as that.
We exchanged a couple more emails after that. She told me about the book and potential movie projects based on her experiences. I told her that I’d be on the lookout for them.
When I decided to move to Kenya in March 2012, Mindy was the first person I contacted. She congratulated me on my “courage” to move 8000 miles to a place where I had no contact to start g.Maarifa and connected me to a couple of people in Nairobi.
Her recently published book, Warrior Princess, has garnered a lot of publicity, especially among the expats and Kenyans who have ties to the States, in the States and in Kenya. I woke up a few days ago to find my Facebook newsfeed covered with comments, mostly negative, about the book. The article that brought this storm of fury, jabs, and white -man’s -burden-esque comments was this article by Shine Yahoo! The main criticism against the book is aptly embodied by one of my friends’ Facebook status, “My response to Mindy Budgor’s book ‘Warrior Princess’, a quote from Chinua Achebe: ‘Can nobody see the preposterous and perverse arrogance in thus reducing Africa to the role of props for the break-up of one petty European (read ‘American’) mind?’” Since then, many of my expats have asked me about my opinions about Mindy and her book.
I read the entire book. Do I think that it is serious literature? No. Is it a fun read? Sure. Do I, an American expat in Kenya, think it embodies the Kenyan culture as a whole? No, but that’s not surprising; the Maasai only counts as 0.7% of the Kenyan population. Was I disgusted after reading the Shine Yahoo! article? Yes, especially by the angle they took to write the story. Do I have problems with some parts of the book? Of course. So here is the breakdown:
- The article seriously exaggerated many aspects of the book and the contrast between Mindy’s previous lifestyle and her experiences in the bush. If you read the book, she was blunt about her affiliation with Under Amour and her lifestyle in Santa Barbara and Chicago.
- The book is one of the few books that I have read that does not take a paternalistic tone towards “the locals.” She describes the Maasais as people who can be misogynistic, educated, not used to big city life, funny, hopeful, open to foreigners, and/or any combination of these. They exist in all groups.
- Another critique is that Mindy is continuing the stereotypes of “Africa” in Americans’ mind. Firstly, I don’t think it is Mindy’s fault that most Americans are wholly ignorant of Africa and think of it as one country with safari animals and poor uneducated people. Secondly, what’s in her book is her experience- the Maasai culture. Thirdly, there is a reason why Americans think of Africa in stereotypical terms: because safaris actually exist and are popular, even among the expats who live in Kenya, the Maasais do exist and their culture is as described in the book. Fourth, Mindy never claims that the Maasai culture is the Kenyan or African culture. She talks about the 42 tribes. I don’t think it is her responsibility to put a disclaimer in front of the book that says, “Maasai does not mean it’s the Kenyan culture. And the Kenyan culture is not representative of the continent.”
- Back when I talked to Mindy, she just wanted to recount her experiences. There was no ulterior “ oh I want to save the world by writing this book” and “I want to break the gender barrier for Maasai girls so that they can have better livelihoods because I can do it better.” A lot of the barrier breaking came about not as intended goals but as unintended externalities of her journey of simply responding to a challenge. In her own words, “she hopes that Warrior Princess will bring attention to the [Maasai] tribe and empower readers to slap complacency in the face and take the reins in their own lives.”
One question I do have is how much say Mindy has had in publicity strategies. The strategies employed so far assume that the readership is barely literate about Maasai cultures and about Kenya and Africa in general. Thus, the book and Mindy come off as another white girl suffering a career breakdown (or white space in Mindy’s case) who goes to Kenya to find herself and ended her saving the entire tribe. What would the tribe have done without her? [that was sarcasm]. Do I think Glamour and Shine Yahoo! were the right media to give interviews to? No.
I am definitely NOT saying that the book is perfect. I found myself scoffing at some parts and rolling my eyes at others, and the title is the worst. But I do think it is a fun and empowering read. Maybe someone else will write a (good) book about modern Kenya and Africa (very much needed), but that’s not the Kenya Mindy experienced for the most part and so she didn’t write about it.
If it makes people feel better, she does talk about four star hotels, rich expats, the division between the rich and the poor, and modern infrastructure.